The Backpack

Or, what you really need while travelling…

A netbook. They are cheap, you don’t lose a lot of money if you lose one or it goes kaput; they are light, which is always a plus; they have a battery life of 7-8 hours. Get one with ‘island’ / chiclet-style keys, they are more comfortable to type on. Get a Dropbox account to backup your most important files.

A cheap digital camera. “It’s not the camera, it’s the photographer”. All you need to capture memories is a gadget that can record images, the artistic value - if you’re so inclined to be concerned about - doesn’t matter whether you have a DSLR or a point-and-shoot. Get over yourself, unless you’re a professional or amateur-pro photographer a DSLR is going to be worth jackshit and you’ll only be adding bulk to what you have to carry - not to mention a lucrative target for theft. (One of the best photographers I know among my friends takes stunning pictures with a ‘crappy’ Nokia E72, I always wonder how she gets the composition right!) Get one which works with standard AA batteries and you’ll thank yourself for not always having to carry a proprietary charger around. Buy a multi-pack of Duracell / Energizer batteries.

A smartphone. Doesn’t matter whether it’s an Android, an iPhone, a Windows Phone, or a BlackBerry. You can load up / access maps offline, which is a heaven-send. (For Android users, there’s the ever-reliable MapDroyd.) If you use Foursquare it also helps you track places you have visited for posterity. Always buy an extra battery and carry it around, you never know when you get to a charging point next. A smartphone with a decent camera helps you capture moments when it’s too hard to quickly reach for a camera…for capturing those elusive ‘spontaneous moments’. That said, enjoy the moment - don’t lose yourself staring into a black mirror. Another advantage of smartphones is that your contact list can be synced and backed up - perfect for guaranteeing of peace-of-mind in case you happen to lose or break it that your vital contact information is still there.

An iPod Nano (or any music player). You’ll inevitably face downtime and music players typically have better battery life; you don’t have to worry about your cellphone running out of power.

A Kindle (the e-book ones, not the tablets) with 3G capability, not the wifi only models. Amazon provides free wireless connectivity practically in every country in the world, and this an excellent tool to quickly look up something or send a message when you are stranded. The best part is that you don’t get hit by any roaming fees and these are excellent devices to carry something to read to boot.

Chargers for all devices. You’ll be surprised how much space these take up or how harrowing it can be to try replace one if you forget to pack it. Also pack a universal power plug adapter - these can be surprisingly hard to find in a new city!

A portable hard disk. Together with your netbook and your documents backed up to the cloud, this can store a lot of your memories, a lot of information about your life - bank accounts, important documents…everything can live online in some form these days.

A change of clothes. If it’s summer, pack a couple of t-shirts and pair of knee-length cargos. If it’s winter, pack a jumper, a hoody, and a spare pair of jeans. Pack them by rolling them up - they take up less space, remain relatively wrinkle-free, and you don’t need to stuff them in plastic bags; you’ll thank yourself for the space you save. Throw in spare underwear and socks. You don’t need any more clothes than that, period. Clothes can always be laundered or cheap ones bought for throw-away use.

A large towel. You can joke about it but a towel is actually one of the most useful things you can keep. Get a microfibre towel - they weigh less, can be packed compactly, and most importantly, dry quickly.

Invest in a decent windproof / rainproof jacket, regardless of where you’re going. A jacket can protect you if it gets slightly chilly especially due to wind chill (which many people forget about if simply looking at average temperatures), and it also protects you in case of rain. Nothing too expensive, mind. While some people prefer Gore-Tex products, I’m personally partial towards Nike Activewear sports training jackets. These are slightly cheaper and have a mesh inner lining that don’t make you feel stuffy, have multiple layers which helps trapping air to combat cold, and a good outer waterproof layer that keeps out the rain. Unless you’re going to a really cold place - think snowy conditions - do not buy a jacket with a cloth outer layer as you’ll be miserable if it gets wet. (If it is a snowy or really cold place go for The North Face gear and pair them up with fleece gloves / caps; fleece is warmer yet lighter than wool. Note that in Asia you get way too many fake North Face merchandise - if the deal is too good to believe, it’s probably a fake!)

Spare plastic bags. If any of your clothes get wet or it’s raining heavily, you need this to isolate your gadgets / your ‘good’ clothes.

Medicines. Band-Aid, condoms, paracetamol, your favourite cure for indigestion. (I swear by Pudin Hara; it’s one item I buy in bulk whenever I’m in India because you don’t find it anywhere else.) Whatever floats your boat but I emphasise the need to carry something for indigestion; you never know what new foods you try out can do to your stomach! No need to carry a full first-aid kit or too many of these, one strip of each will do. Chances are you won’t need them so no point adding bulk, and if you ever end up in a situation where you need medicines you’ll probably need proper medical assistance anyway where such supplies will be available.

A journal. To record it all in.

Passport, wallet, a couple of credit / debit cards, and minimal amount of cash. Don’t buy local currency of the place you’re travelling to in your own / foreign country; you’ll almost always get a better deal on exchange rates in the local country.

And lastly, a good backpack. When people think of backpacking, they think of massive 80 litre backpacks - which unless you are planning to travel for many months and that too by land transport is an incredibly stupid decision. If you’re flying, large backpacks need to be checked-in thus adding to costs if you’re flying with a low-cost airline. Even otherwise, when travelling by bus or train, a large backpack will force you to compromise on your own space; believe me, sitting with a large backpack squished between your knees for hours on end in cramped buses / trains is the LAST thing you want. No, the best backpacks for backpacking are compact backpacks that meet airline cabin baggage guidelines (roughly 55 x 40 x 20 cm), are actually waterproof in each compartment (you won’t believe how many normal ‘college-use’ style backpacks aren’t waterpoof despite claiming to be so), have a padded compartment (for your precious gadgets), come with a waist strap (good for support and preventing drive-by bag snatching). Never get a sling bag as single-strap bags will bite into your shoulders and wear you down while you walk around.

That’s it. That is literally my entire packing inventory when I pack for a backpacking trip. If there’s ever a fire and I need to decide what I need to save, this is all I need. I can fit my life into a single compact backpack. Everything else is irrelevant: people lose sight of details adding snacks, toiletries, more clothes etc. You don’t need them - they can all be bought, and cheaply. “Everything else” that you could ever want in your life are the people around you who care and love you. Nothing. Else. Matters.

On a slightly larger scale, when I move places I have the same goal: everything I need must fit into a single large travel bag, one piece of airline checked-in luggage within weight limits (20 kg, as that’s the lower limit for checked-in baggage that will not run afoul of practically any airline in the world). This expands the list from the packing inventory above to include two suits and accompanying formal dress shirts and trousers, formal-wear shoes, a handful of more jeans, t-shirts, and hoodies…and maybe a couple of books. A bigger bag also allows me the luxury of stuffing in a folder of memorabilia - drawings, letters, and keepsakes from times gone by, although for me these are increasingly in digital form. I donate / recycle everything else I can and at worst simply throw them away.

It sounds simple yet it’s not. Fitting the sum total of everything you need to walk away with, limited to 20 kg, is hard and I don’t know of many people you can do it. Why not just take an extra piece of luggage? Why not take a slightly larger bag when backpacking and check it in, carry slightly more stuff? Because at the rates you pay for excess baggage, it’s almost always cheaper to buy what you need - even the more expensive clothing items in your wardrobe - brand new than paying the airline to take them with you. I practically end up refreshing my wardrobe every single year as every time I move, I simply get rid of what cannot fit into One Single Bag start afresh. Start packing, include the more expensive items first, throw the rest away. Rinse and repeat. If you still can’t decide, throw away clothes that don’t fit you well any more.

This is all fundamentally simple arithmetic and yet I don’t get why people don’t do it. Last year in December, I flew to Chennai from Singapore with Tiger Airways, a low-cost airline which makes you pay an additional charge for one piece of checked-in luggage plus excess baggage rates (typically S$20 per kg) for any other piece of baggage additionally checked-in. Many of the passengers in queue at the airline counter were migrant South Indian labourers working in Singapore - hardly the demographic that can splurge out on anything beyond basic necessities as they need to send money back home to support their families. That’s why they were flying Tiger Airways in the first place! Yet, many of them paid excess baggage of S$100-300 (remember, this is just one-way; there were equally as many lugging back similar amount of luggage on my return flight to Singapore) - something they could certainly ill-afford to - to check in additional baggage. And I wondered - what on earth can be so irreplaceable that you cannot replace it for S$200-600! And this is just one anecdote - I’ve seen such cases every single time in airports around the world where people are willing to pay airlines what I consider insane amounts of money for what they are possibly carrying (clothes???).

Everything burns. All you need is People Who Care and One Single Bag.

What’s the point of this blog post? It’s not to boast. I mentioned my backpacking inventory because many who think of doing it have this idea of large rucksacks from popular culture and they think they must have one. You don’t, as I said, that’s for long-term backpacking. Even then, the concept of fitting everything in your life in one bag remains: long-term backpackers fit what I would consider my single (wheelie) travel suitcase/bag inventory (not the backpacking one) in one large rucksack.

I think not enough people do a cost-benefit analysis of taking excess baggage and I genuinely think if more people thought of the ‘crazy’ alternative of buying replacements instead, they would go for the latter. Travel is one of those things where there are so many things to keep track of that people tend to go for the path of least hassle - and this is precisely what airlines cash in on. And not just travel either: every year when university starts, I see fucking armies of fathers and siblings help new students carry belongings to their rooms and I wonder how much can one person possibly need? Need is whole different concept from want.

Give this some thought. You don’t need so many material possessions. When you really think of it, do you think you could fit everything you want to retain in one bag?

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